Responding to Biennale Director Rem Koolhaas’ general question on how modernity was absorbed in different countries, the Latvian Pavilion curators came up with an original answer: “There is no modernist architecture in Latvia” – a statement that raises both eyebrows and questions.
The exhibition was curated by the young Latvian architecture office NRJA (No Rules Just Architecture). uncube talked to Zigmãrs Jauja, a member of the NRJA collective, who says they won the national contest for the Latvian contribution mainly by holding up a neon sign with their slogan in which the word “no” blinked on and off – turning it into a question.
So is there modernist architecture in Latvia or not? “Of course there is”, says Jauja. “But with our claim we wanted to point out that there has been almost no research or evaluation of modern architecture in Latvia, especially not from the time when Latvia was under Russian occupation after the second world war. There is, for instance, not a single book dedicated to modern architecture in Latvia, but you can find dozens about our cities, castles, Art Nouveau or individual architects. Post-war modernism in our country is still very much linked to that time, which makes it hard for many people to evaluate it from an unprejudiced point of view.”
So behind the provocative slogan of the exhibition's title, NRJA’s claim is rather that the story of Latvian post-war modernism is as yet unwritten. They understand their exhibition to be a pioneering project aimed at kickstarting a discussion and evaluation on modern architecture in their country. “We have this ambigious historic context”, says Jauja, “we have inhabited buildings from that period, some architects and planners of that time are still alive, yet we have a huge problem because we just don’t discuss what to do with the built heritage of that time. There is the only [modernist] building listed as a State Architectural Monument, which is a family summer house in Pabazi by Modris Gelzis from 1959.”
NRJA collected not just well-known Latvian icons of modern architecture, but widened their net to include all modernist buildings in Latvia, asking for suggestions, images and impressions from fellow Latvians via the internet. “If are to take this issue seriously, we need to address as many people as possible. So we are happy not just to bring this exhibition to Venice, but also to show it in Latvia afterwards. That is also why we created a Facebook page and why you can download our entire catalogue for free.”
Within the 489-page-catalogue are images of all the modern buildings NRJA collected, plus interesting essays by Vladimir Belogolovsky, Juris Dambis and Artis Zvirgzdins, as well as some short interviews with architects about modern architecture in Latvia and what to do with its heritage.
So where does this project go next? “We have marked out the fields of future research, brought them together, and now we're putting this out into the public realm hoping that there will be a reaction”, says Jauja, “be it positive or negative, we need more and more people to examine, discuss and think about modern architecture in Latvia. We hope this exhibition can start a process.” Only then, say NRJA, will Latvian modern architecture really come into being.
– Florian Heilmeyer